Take one iPod and Spotify addict, give him the text of a lecture by John Cage, take away his music for a week, and see what happens. It was a recent, quite unscientific experiment and the guinea pig was me.
The first few days were harsh. Putting on the stereo was one of those things that helped get me out of bed in the morning. I resorted to singing in the shower, whistling on the way to the office. Back home at night, the silence stretched out like dead time. Life seemed a blank. TV was no substitute.
By day five I had begun dreaming about music and in my dream I was making preparations to listen to Wouldn’t It Be Nice by The Beach Boys. ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘it will be very nice,’ but my fix of melody never came to pass. I woke up, to more, depressing silence.
That weekend there was a party and I was expecting wine, women and song: in reverse order. But the longed for music was a disappointment. Watching guests dance, I missed the sound of washing machines, traffic or dogs barking. Okay, that may have been the drink thinking.
But the next day I got a bus and sat at the back, over the engine, and for the first time really got into some background noise. Each burst of acceleration seemed like a dense, reverb-filled chord. I think it helped that engine noise is loud, more attuned to my rock sensibilties.
The real acid test was switching on the football last night to watch a World Cup game. It was Spain versus Honduras and the two goals were not bad, but you know what? The much maligned drone of the African vuvuzelas does sound, in fact, fantastic. Then again, so do the Beach Boys.
An exhibition of paintings by John Cage, Every Day is a Good Day, is on show at BALTIC, Gateshead until 5 September 2010.
Exhibition: Cage Mix – Sound and Sculpture, BALTIC, Gateshead, until September 19 2010
If ever a course sounded challenging, it was this one: Experimental Composition at the New School for Social Research; tutor: John Cage.
Cage taught the classes towards the end of the 1950s and his students were by and not musicians, but artists. So few memorable tunes resulted.
Nevertheless it was here that the 60s craze for ‘happenings’ was born and also where the Fluxus movement got going. And 60 years on artists are still drawing inspiration from the avant garde composer’s life and work.
Indeed, the current show at BALTIC features a response from eight contemporary artists to a piece of work developed while Cage was at the New School, Fontana Mix.
This piece was scored on transparent sheets which, when overlapped, would result in random compositions and new pieces of work.
These must have inspired the 165 sheets of paper which make up Paper Moon by Paul Ramirez Jonas. Repeating the phrase “I create as I speak” he builds a map of our lunar satellite which viewers are invited to read aloud or to themselves from a loose sheet presented with a microphone.
Fontana Mix also finds an echo in the composition of loose musical instrument parts arranged on the gallery’s slate floor. But Katja Strunz’s astral-type arrangement reflects that ultimate chance event, the big bang.
Meanwhile local artist Richard Rigg suspends a brass bell in a vacuum sealed bell jar which when rung can be seen and not heard. Surely, an echo of Cage’s famous 4’33” piece.
Clearly, Cage’s impact on art has been massive. Has there ever been an artist who has done as much for music?
Art is getting noisier. Galleries echo with moving image installations. The quieter ones provide you with audio-guides. Sound is now such a vital dimension of art, some artists are making art about that very phenomenon.
In a boxlike construction at Ikon in Birmingham, you can pull up a beanbag and enjoy some music. On a giant screen ahead a retro turntable plays a selection of vinyl LPs. It reconstructs the type of experience you might have at home, yet you are sat in a sculpture.
This is Soundtrack for an Exhibition (2000-) by conceptual artist Ron Terada. It features a selection of his favourite tunes from the last ten years and celebrates his first major show in Europe. Pavement, The Magnetic Fields and The Walkmen are among the bands included.
Curator Helen Legg explains the popularity of the work: “Ron likes making mix tapes and people like having mix tapes made for them . . . so people are working out whether there is a narrative to the work.” This particular mix tape has also been pressed up as a free record that gallery goers can take home with them.
The melancholy tunes can be heard throughout the exhibition, and it should be mentioned that this show is called “Who I Think I Am”. This personal selection of music seems a direct way of getting to know the artist, or is it?
“I think that Ron is very smart guy,” says Legg. “He’s very self aware, so the music is both the kind of music he would listen to – they are his favourite songs quite genuinely – but he is also very aware of impression they give of him, so that’s why the show is a self portrait and the music too.”
Either way, Terada has good taste, which makes this a contender for the best sounding show of the year. It makes you wonder why so much art is still looked at in silence.
“I think its just a cultural habit, which I guess comes from the history of exhibition making and the way museums and galleries have operated historically,” explains Legg. “But I think with moving images becoming more prevalent within galleries that’s starting to be challenged and fade away. I think curators are increasingly becoming aware of the uses of sound, and artists too.”
Not content with soundtracks, many creative arts shows are now developing audiovisual idents. A recent example can be found at Life in 2050 at Proud Central in London.
Most of the work in the future-focussed exhibition, which runs in support of the 9th Sci-Fi London Film Festival, is comprised of relatively quiet illustration, photography and design. So the ident, projected from the mouth of a sculptural robot onto the white wall, sets the atmospheric tone.
Visually, it is a code-generated animation, which appears to map the evolution and dissolution of an entire world. It is abstract, cerebral and, like the Terada piece, hypnotic. Meanwhile the ambient techno backing provides an unofficial soundtrack to your visit and indeed the entire film festival.
Creative Director Andrew Jones and his agency Future Deluxe set out to find music that could bear repeated listening. “Some of the first pieces we looked at were quite electronic and quite structured, with too much emphasis on the beat, but when we heard Quadrant 3 [by Harmonic 313], it matched the animations because you could keep listening to it again and again,” he explains.
Jones says that in the world of digital arts, it is now standard practice to develop an ident: “In terms of promotion and the online element it works very well, getting people talking about it, building up a bit of hype before the exhibition starts.”
Yet he admits there is a historical precedence for silence before the work of art. “There’s definitely some things that are carried forward from the past with art galleries. There is I think an element of ‘That’s how we do things in an art gallery, because that’s how we’ve always done it.’”
“I don’t know why,” he adds. “I don’t agree with it.” And as he demonstrates, shows with added music leave a powerful impression. Anyone might come round to Jones’ way of thinking.
Exhibition: Underwater, Towner, Eastbourne, until June 20 2010
In the landscapes paintings of Eric Ravilious, the South Downs look like green waves in a rough sea, at least they do so after a visit to Underwater at Towner.
The Eastbourne gallery has a reputation for landscape art and the local painter is one of many whose downland works feature in the permanent collection.
Ravilious doesn’t qualify for the new show, which takes the boundaries of the landscape genre and drags them into the depths. But it might have pleased him that his hometown can now stake a place on the UK map of contemporary art.
The big name at the current show is Bill Viola, whose 2005 video Becoming Light turns a non-specific body of water into an inky blue starry night.
Floating just below and occasionally above the surface are an entwined couple whose struggle to remain buoyant resembles an improvised dance. They come up for air and look ecstatic. They sink away from the camera out of sight and end life as a luminous bubble of oxygen, or perhaps carbon dioxide.
In a second video, by Dorothy Cross, the artist films herself afloat among a swarm of jellyfish. This is a nude, as much as a landscape, and a scene of painful exposure. But the creatures appear not to harm her. They merely investigate, along with our gaze.
Klaus Osterwald also takes us below the surface of a lake, with a five speaker audio installation. Donatus Subaqua reveals a mysterious world of noisy fish, bubbling gases and overheard human calls. Space, depth and topography are rendered in sound.
Another subaquatic landscape is provided by Seunghyn Woo, whose plaster and wire mesh sculptures look both organic and alien. Dripped with acrylic the colour of exotic milkshakes, they get even more interesting close up, like coral.
Perhaps the underwater realm is, after all, unknowable. Detailed photographs of the sea bed here, taken by Daniel Gustav Cramer, show it as dark, murky and utterly impenetrable. Eric Ravilious would surely have been fascinated.
Exhibition: Andrew Stonyer – Audio Kinetic Solar Sculpture, Fermynwoods, Northamptonshire, until September 26 2010
It has been a few decades since music fans frequently used terms like “cosmic” and “far out”, but such language seems about right for a new work at Fermynwoods.
Andrew Stonyer’s sculpture hangs between a small group of Elder trees and responds with movement and sound to the daily cycles of our nearest star.
The artist describes his sculpture as “a search for patterns of actual and implied kinetic imagery, hidden within the seemingly regular”. In other words, this latest work should investigate whether or not the sun moves to a beat.
Audio-kinetic solar sculptures are nothing new apparently. Stonyer has looked to pre-classical Greece for inspiration, where there is evidence for the common enjoyment of sun-powered, sound-producing sculptures.
Another historical precedent is the notion of an Aeolian or wind-powered harp which came into fashion with romanticism. Once again it was nature calling the tune.
But not all of Stonyer’s work is quite so ethereal. A 2000 installation in the Newcastle Metro offered a kinetic response to the vibrations of passing trains. Cosmic? Maybe not, but a heavy trip all the same.
Exhibition: Imogen Stidworthy, Arnolfini, Bristol, until April 25
In some ways the work of Imogen Stidworthy goes beyond the limits of visual art, because her main area of interest is speech.
Accent, slang and speech therapy are all explored in her new show at Arnolfini. It is the first UK survey of the Liverpool-based artist.
But despite her concern with language, Stidworthy translates well. She has built up an international reputation, and one piece in her current show was commissioned by Documenta XII, the serious-minded exhibition in Germany that only comes round every five years.
The result is called I Hate and studies the rehabilitation of a photographer who lost his voice in a cycling accident. Sessions with the therapist are filmed along with his own shots of a major scene of demolition and reconstruction, the Eurostar Terminal at St Pancras prior to November 2007.
Her European audience may not get on so well with recent film Barrabackslarrabang. The soundtrack here is Backslang, a language spoken by British criminal types to hide shady deals from the ears of the law. Onscreen imagery weaves in pertinent themes such as class, race, trade and desire.
As two other pieces in the show suggest, language is closely tied to place. Get Here and Topography of a Voice both listen carefully to how Scousers speak, exploring physical word formation and nuance.
This is familiar territory for linguists, yet not so much for artists.